In this interview, we gain insight into the career journey of SHG paralegal Maria Cecilia Herrera, a former United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Field Officer, whose path into humanitarian work unfolded unexpectedly yet purposefully. Originating from Ecuador and with law degrees from Ecuador and the United States, Maria shares a candid conversation about her transition from disillusionment with the legal system to finding fulfillment in refugee protection and immigration and nationality law. Her experiences shed light on the realities of working on the front lines of humanitarian crises, navigating challenges, and advocating for the rights of displaced individuals. Now engaged in US immigration and naturalization law, Maria’s story reflects her commitment to making a meaningful difference in the lives of those facing adversity.  

Why did you decide to become a UNHCR Field Officer?  

I did not really decide to become a UNHCR Officer, it sort of happened to me. I graduated from law school in Ecuador very disappointed. I tried to work at a few places, but I found out the legal system was too corrupted, so I was not really interested in practicing law in Ecuador. I was unemployed for a few months until one of my human rights professors informed me that the local UNHCR office asked him to share a job opening with some young lawyers interested in human rights. I applied and they called me for an interview. I remember studying for 2 weeks for that interview. They did not hire me for that position, but they did hire me for another position in the city of Esmeraldas, in the Ecuadorian border with Colombia. 

What is the process for joining the UN, and the training involved?

The process varies, depending on position, duty station and UN Agency. But after you submit your application and you pass the initial screening, you undergo further assessment. The first step usually includes a written test that evaluate your technical knowledge and skills for the position. Only people that pass the written test, go through a very hard competency-based interview that usually involves a selection panel. People that get to this stage must study hard and demonstrate that they have the skills that are required for the position.

How long did your serve?  And in what countries? 

I worked for UNHCR from early 2012 until December 2018. I worked in a few cities of Ecuador first and then I moved to Greece during the refugee emergency and my final post was Belize. 

Can you describe a particularly challenging situation you’ve encountered in your role as a UNHCR field officer, and how you navigated it?

When I was working at UNHCR Branch Office in Quito, we had to resolve an emergency situation. I was in charge of voluntary repatriations, and at the end of December, the field office sent us an urgent case for a family voluntary repatriation that had to return to Colombia before the end of the year, otherwise they would lose their compensation as victims of the conflict. The timing was extremely tight because the family had only a few days to travel, programs were closing their budgets, and everyone was going on vacation. Additionally, our agreement with IOM, who handled all the logistical aspects from buying tickets to airport accompaniment, had ended and we had not yet signed a new agreement. So, we sat down as a team and decided to prioritize this case. We divided the tasks with another colleague, and she took care of the logistical part, booking tickets, etc., and I took care of preparing the legal analysis and documentation for the case, and then speaking with the airline to ensure there would be no issues with the trip, and accompanying them to the airport. It was truly a great team effort, and it was a huge motivation for everyone when the case managed to leave on time.

What strategies do you employ to build trust and rapport with refugee communities in the areas where you work?

Building trust and rapport with refugee communities is essential for effective humanitarian work. UNHCR staff are trained to demonstrate cultural sensitivity and respect for the customs, traditions, and beliefs of the refugee communities they serve. UNHCR actively engages refugee communities in decision-making through participatory approaches, including community meetings, focus group discussions, and consultation sessions. 

How do you prioritize competing needs and demands in resource-constrained environments, ensuring the most vulnerable individuals receive adequate support?

UNHCR staff have many tools to carry out needs assessment and establish vulnerability criteria to prioritize assistance and protection interventions for the most vulnerable individuals and groups, such as children, women at risk, elderly persons, persons with disabilities, and survivors of violence or trauma.

Can you share an example of a successful intervention or program you’ve implemented to address the specific needs of refugees in your area of responsibility?

UNHCR’s Branch Office in Ecuador successfully supported the National Congress team that was drafting the Human Mobility Law. I was part of the team that developed written legal arguments and shared relevant international human rights standards. The law was finally voted and approved. It was a very successful intervention.

In what ways do you collaborate with local authorities, NGOs, and other stakeholders to coordinate humanitarian assistance and ensure the protection of refugees?

In every possible way, UNHCR usually participates in coordination mechanisms at the local and national levels to facilitate collaboration among authorities, NGOs, and other UN agencies. This includes humanitarian clusters, working groups, coordination forums, and inter-agency coordination structures established in crisis-affected areas.

UNHCR also provides capacity building and training support to local authorities, NGOs, and community-based organizations involved in refugee assistance and protection. This includes training on refugee law and protection principles, humanitarian standards, gender-based violence prevention, child protection, and other relevant topics.

The goal of the UN is not to replace the government but to strengthen government capacity to effectively protect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.

How do you stay informed about the evolving political and social dynamics in the regions where you operate, and how does this knowledge inform your work?

First, UNHCR maintains a field presence in refugee-hosting countries, with staff stationed in key locations to monitor developments and gather firsthand information about political, social, and security dynamics. Field staff engage with local authorities, community leaders, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders to stay abreast of current events and emerging trends.

UNHCR also conducts its own analysis and research on political, social, and economic trends in refugee-hosting countries and regions. This includes monitoring media reports, academic research, policy analysis, and other sources of information to identify implications of political and social dynamics for refugee protection and assistance.

What measures do you take to ensure the safety and security of both refugees and UNHCR staff in volatile or conflict-affected areas?

UNHCR conducts thorough risk assessments and analysis to understand the security situation in areas where it operates. This includes assessing potential threats, vulnerabilities, and the impact of conflict on refugees and staff.

Based on risk assessments, UNHCR develops clear security protocols and procedures for its operations in volatile areas, to minimize risks to staff and refugees. UNHCR takes the security of their staff very seriously. I remember that I even had to get approval by UNHCR’s security officer before renting a place in Belize. Belize had some very unsafe areas, so they did not want their staff to be at risk.

UNHCR also provides security training for its staff working in high-risk environments. 

How do you approach the task of advocating for the rights of refugees within the legal and political frameworks of the host country?

UNHCR advocates for policies and measures that support the rights and needs of refugees and strengthen protection frameworks at the local, national, and international levels. This involves engaging in policy dialogue with governments, advocating for legal and policy reforms, and mobilizing support for refugee protection and assistance.

Can you discuss a time when you had to make a difficult decision with significant implications for refugee protection, and how you arrived at your decision?

In 2016, I was working as a senior Protection Assistant with the UNHCR’s Branch Office, and we funded some projects through different implementing partners. So, the implementing partners brought up the issue that they had identified some cases of persons that maybe did not deserve international protection as a refugee because they were part of armed groups or they had potentially committed or aided the commission of some awful acts such as murder, crimes against humanity, or war crimes. So, they were making a quick analysis and deciding whether or not they deserved humanitarian assistance, meaning food or maybe money to pay the rent. But, for a refugee to be excluded from international protection and therefore humanitarian assistance, we needed to make a thorough legal analysis, because of the serious consequence this could have for their lives. So, the Branch Office decided to draft a Standard Operating Procedure to deal with these complex cases. I helped with the drafting of the SOPs and then I had to socialize these SOPs with all Field Offices and they were not happy at all, because this meant more work, of course, for protection assistants in the field offices. So, I talked to my boss and asked her if I could travel to field offices across the country to train focal points on the use of these SOPs and she agreed. So, I traveled to field offices to train each focal point and showed them how to use the tool. I feel that in the end, they appreciated they had this tool, so they no longer had to make discretionary decisions on who deserved humanitarian assistance and who didn’t. So, I feel there was a positive outcome.

Why did you ultimately leave your position at UNHCR?

While my time at UNHCR was immensely rewarding and fulfilling, the nature of the work often involved frequent relocations and deployments to various locations around the world. As much as I valued the opportunities for professional growth and the chance to make a positive impact on the lives of refugees and displaced persons, I ultimately felt a need to establish roots and maintain a sense of stability in one place.

This decision was not made lightly, as I deeply valued the mission and work of UNHCR. However, I recognized the importance of achieving a balance between my career aspirations and personal well-being. Transitioning to a more stable and predictable work environment in the private sector allows me to cultivate a sense of stability while continuing to contribute my skills and expertise to meaningful work within the realm of immigration law.

I remain grateful for the invaluable experiences, relationships, and skills gained during my time at UNHCR.

What motivates you to continue working in this challenging field, (now in the private sector work working with US immigration and naturalization law) despite the many obstacles and hardships you may encounter?

As a former UNHCR staff member transitioning to the private sector, my motivation remains deeply rooted in the underlying drive to make a meaningful difference in the lives of individuals facing displacement, persecution, and other forms of adversity. I love working with people and knowing that at the end of the day, we are making a difference.

Ultimately, my motivation stems from a deeply held belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, or immigration status. By continuing to work in this challenging field, I remain committed to advancing the cause of human rights, social justice, and compassion for those most in need of protection and support.

What sort of work are you doing now at SHG?  How does your experience at UNHCR inform the work you now do at SHG?

At SHG, I currently serve as a Paralegal, where I am responsible for preparing various types of humanitarian and family-based immigration applications, including N400, I-130, Inadmissibility Waivers, I-589 applications for asylum, I-918/I-914 for U visas and T visas, etc. 

At SHG, my experience at the UNHCR has been instrumental in shaping my approach to handling immigration cases. Working with the UNHCR provided me with a profound understanding of the needs and vulnerabilities of individuals seeking refuge and asylum. This experience has instilled in me a deep sense of sensitivity and empathy, which I bring to my role at SHG when working with clients who may be facing challenging circumstances.

One of the key lessons I learned at the UNHCR was the importance of upholding human rights principles in every aspect of our work. This includes principles such as ensuring no harm or revictimization to individuals who have already endured significant hardship, as well as maintaining strict confidentiality to safeguard their privacy and security. These principles are foundational to the services we provide at SHG, and my experience at the UNHCR has equipped me with the knowledge and sensitivity to integrate them seamlessly into my work.

Moreover, my time at the UNHCR emphasized the importance of providing compassionate and high-quality service to our clients at SHG. This commitment to holistic care informs my approach at SHG, where I strive to not only navigate the legal complexities of immigration cases but also to ensure that our clients feel supported, empowered, and respected throughout the process. I am grateful for the opportunity to leverage these experiences to make a positive impact in the lives of those we serve.